Travelogue LXIII: Vermont I: Landscape

September 1st, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for two weeks now. At the end of the day, this place comes and will always come closer to home than anywhere else I might live. It’s in my blood, familiar as the back of my hand.

The aesthetics of Vermont are winning me over again, as they always do. It’s a sort of resting, this–to stare into the distance and see nothing but woods and clouds and perhaps a single mown field on the horizon. You can hardly do that in Germany. It’s a country full of green spaces, but with 82 million people in a land the size of Montana, the next village is almost always in sight. Here, so much of what one sees is defined by emptiness, and that emptiness is breathtaking.

This time, instead of posting my own photos I am handing things over to my very talented mother and sister, who have captured a great deal of beauty on the farm in the last two years. Most of the pictures were taken from our front porch.

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Travelogue XLVIII: Johannisnacht

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Cabaret in Mainz  during the Johannisfest.

June 20, 2015 Summer is the time of festivals in Germany. It seems like every town has one, or several, from the tiniest Dorf to the largest city–a weekend of live music and dancing and wine (or beer, depending on which part of Germany you are in) and all sorts of unhealthy-but-delicious German culinary specialties.

In Mainz, there’s the Johannisnacht festival at the end of June. Things are a little different in Mainz than in the rest of Germany, I think–a bit more intensive, all-encompasing, more Dionysian perhaps. The Fastnacht spirit isn’t just limited to a couple weeks in February.

In Würzburg, for instance, the yearly Kiliani Festival takes place outside of town, on neat and properly contained fairgrounds. In Mainz, the Johannisnacht takes up half the dang town, with the bus schedule screwed up for days and the entire Inner City full of stages and lights and stands selling cocktails and bratwurst. And the Meenzers know how to throw a party–some 250,000 people attend the festival over the course of four days, despite the pouring rain and semi-arctic temperatures this year.

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One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend...

One of the hundreds of local vineyards who set up a stand for the weekend…

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Schlager behind the cathedral.

Music plays an enormous role at the summer festivals. At the Mainzer Johannisnacht, there are four main stages and dozens of concerts over the course of a long weekend–from oldies and brass band to rap and hip-hop, and everything in between.

And Schlager. The Schlager concerts are inescapable. The genre is distinctly German–kitchy, danceable, inescapably catchy pop ballads with roots that go back to the operettas of the 1920s and 30s. Many of the songs sung today date from the 1950s or earlier and have been re-written and re-mixed and re-sung hundreds of times in the ensuing decades. Like Country Music in America, the texts are mostly about drinking and falling into and out of love, but also about the simple, unadulterated joy of being alive. The world of Schlager is full of schöne Tage (beautiful days). In the words of one Fastnacht hit, Eins kann uns keiner nehmen und das ist die pure Lust am Leben. There is one thing nobody can take from us, and that is the pure joy of life…

And everyone knows all the words, it seems. During the Johannisnacht, one has the feeling that half of Mainz is standing in front of the stage, young and old alike, singing and crying and smoking and drinking beer and dancing in that awkward-but-infectious way that only Germans can.

I suppose part of me will always be the snobby operagoer who drinks champagne in the intermission and can talk for hours about a particular interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd. But every once in a while, you just need to link arms with a bunch of crazy Meenzers singing “Traum von Amsterdam” and let it all out.

And anyway, you can’t dance at the opera.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

This guy managed to wear lederhosen, drink beer, twerk, and sing Schlager all at the same time. That takes skill, folks.

Despite the pouring rain...

Despite the pouring rain…

80s Rock in the pouring rain.

80s rock.

Cabaret. In some past life, I'm pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin--coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other. 

Cabaret. In some past life, I’m pretty much certain I was a Kabarettistin–coattails and lipstick, glass of red wine in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….

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The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.

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Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

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Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.

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Travelogue VIII: Plassenburg, Kulmbach

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23. August, 2014 Yesterday, I walked down into the valley and up the other side, to the castle which is visible from the high fields here. The Plassenburg–on the outside, much more rugged and Medieval than the Festung Marienberg in Würzburg, but quite lovely and elegant within the walls.

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Afterwards, I walked back down to the old city. I got entirely lost on the way, and ended up in the maze of narrow alleys and overhanging balconies and stone steps that seem to dominate the quieter parts of every small town in Bavaria.

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IMG_0489…back on track!

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Below, the town square, which I finally found–complete with mandatory cobblestones, outdoor cafe, fountain, Rathaus with wooden beer barrels in front, view of the castle in the background. I ordered a Milchkaffe and read Siegfried Lenz and looked at the Plassenburg.

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And best of all, on the long treck back to the farm there was a cat.
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Travelogue VI: WWOOFing in Kulmbach

kulmbach st. petriKulmbach. With castle, of course. 

8. August, 2014. The amount of contrast this life affords is astonishing to me. Just a week ago I was drinking champagne, trying to figure out which fork to use in the cafe after the opera. And now I have dirt permanently stuck under my fingernails and have just spent the last eight hours cutting up cucumbers and stuffing them in jars. Wahnsinn.  

I’m currently in the tiny town of Kulmbach in Bavaria, working on a farm as a part of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s an exchange program of sorts, where people travel all over the world and work for their keep on farms, gaining skills and networking and learning languages. We’ve had WWOOFers on and off at our place for years, and when it works it is an absolutely fantastic experience.

The couple I am staying with now spent the last five years WWOOFing themselves, in Japan and Serbia and Africa and Switzerland, and have just begun their own farm. They have a little of everything, and of course too much work to do–huge sprawling garden, orchard with plums and apples and pears, four pigs, fifty chickens, two donkeys, geese, dogs. When they moved in, the barn was falling in from decades of neglect, the garden hadn’t been tended in years, there were no fences or watering systems or cleared trails. They, along with a seemingly constant stream of WWOOFers from around the world, are just starting to take things back.

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I’m thrilled to be here. I loved my month with the Wuerzburg program–dress up every evening, go to concerts and modern art museums, talk about Musil and Nietzsche while drinking wine on some gorgeous terrace somewhere, be refined and intellectual and decadent. But I love this too–dirt and animals everywhere, the electric fencer half taken apart on the kitchen table, neighbors dropping in with a basket of dill to talk in broad dialect about the excess of cucumbers.

And honestly, it’s what I know best. I’ve spent my Augusts in a farm kitchen since before I could walk. I can snap beans in my sleep.

IMG_0363Heinrich and Henrietta, plus a friend. Animals that have names don’t get eaten. 

Differences in atmosphere aside, though, here there is still this internationality that I find so staggering. Right now, we are four or five countries all together, all with drastically different worldviews and upbringings. That’s the wonderful thing about good people, though–that somehow it all works out in the end and the household runs smoothly and we have fun. I love the dynamism of it all, the fluid approach to language, where the conversation at dinner flows back and forth between English and High German and Finnish and Bavarian depending on who is trying to make themselves understood. Last night we sat around the fire and sang–I taught them all Irish drinking songs, and learned German folk tunes and a bunch of mournful dirges from Finnland. I explained to my hosts that a cruise and a crusade are not the same thing, and learned the difference between Teig and Teich and Lärche and Lerche. Tricky stuff, that.

IMG_0315Getting ready for dinner in front of the fire, sitting on sheepskins–eat with your hands. 

IMG_0335Afterwards, singing until midnight because tomorrow is a rest day and we don’t have to get up early. 

At this time of year on a farm, everything revolves around food. Breakfast is after chores at 8:30, with two loaves of fresh bread (wheat ground on the farm), one with raisins and one with pumpkin seeds–also cheese and pickles and blackberries and juniper syrup in tea. Then everyone leaves and I make 25 pounds of pesto while the bread-and-butter pickles started last night heat up to be canned. At 1pm it’s time for lunch, and the girl from Finnland fries carrots and beets while I make a cucumber salad–yoghurt, fresh mint, salt and pepper. There’s also chocolate zucchini cake and an apple pie with the first of the apples from the orchard. After lunch, someone brings an entire laundry basket of beans in from the garden, and we wash and snap and boil and freeze until 6pm, when it is time to get ready for dinner.  I make two platters of tomato, mozzarella, and basil leaves, with calendula blossoms on top for a garnish. My host’s little brother  shows me how to make Zwetschgenknödel for dessert, which are a sort of Austrian plum dumplings and absolutely delicious. We spread a feast in front of the fireplace, and eat the tomatoes with chicken roasted over the flames.

IMG_0309Vegetables everywhere–there’s even pumpkins, tomatoes, and basil growing in front of the farmhouse, as if the huge garden out back wasn’t enough.

IMG_0361Apple orchard. There’s almost too much fruit for the branches to support. 

The sheer abundance and richness of it all is staggering. Inside, baskets and barrels and cans upon cans of food, and outside a jungle of greenery and vines and fruit. The Garden of Eden.

IMG_0338The colors are brilliant. 

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….And the infamous Zwetschgenknödel. Suuuuper lecker!!!

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